By Sara Mayo
In her quiet way, Rosemarie Chapman, was one of Hamilton’s true fighters for justice and equality. Rosemarie recently lost her battle with cancer and Hamilton anti-poverty activists are mourning her death. Her fellow activists, Josie D’Amico and Sally Palmer, wrote a lovely tribute published in the Hamilton Spectator last month. More recently, a reporter at The Hamilton Spectator also wrote a profile of her life.
I conducted an interview with Rosemarie that was published in The Women’s Press in a special “Women and Poverty” joint issue with the Immigrant Women’s Centre and the SPRC in May 2010. I wanted to re-publish it here to honour Rosemarie and inspire others in Hamilton to continue her fight to eliminate poverty.
How one woman made a change
Facing bureaucratic social assistance rules, Rosemarie Chapman woman fought the system.
“The thing is, the people who make these rules have no idea how it affects people.”
Rosemarie Chapman, a Hamilton mother of 3 daughters, has experienced the brunt of incomprehensible social assistance rules. When one of her daughters went to university, half of the income from her daughter’s job was taken back from Rosemarie’s ODSP cheque. But Rosemarie fought the system – and won!
Q. How did this all start for you?
About four years ago, my daughter was going to university. Social services expects dependant adults to work, just like someone on Ontario Works, so we had to follow the same rules. I found that very frustrating because, even though they were requiring her to work, they were taking 50 cents for every dollar of her income off my cheque. Meanwhile, someone in high school who is working would not have any money taken away. On top of this we have all the extra costs of tuition because she’s in university.
Q. So what was your reaction?
I didn’t know what to do about it at first but I thought that it was a dumb rule – very counter-productive, because the government wants our children to go to school so they can get out of poverty. Hopefully they graduate and get a good job, start paying taxes and then they’re out of the system. But they were doing everything in their power to make it difficult.
Q. How did you decide to try to change the rule?
I thought what could I do about it, I’m just one person? I didn’t see anything in the news about anyone else complaining and one day I heard that Deb Matthews, the Minister of Community and Social Services at the time, was coming to Hamilton to talk about the clawback to the National Child Benefit. They allowed people to speak from the audience and I thought it was a good opportunity to speak out about this. So that was the first time I did speak out. I was worried about it, but I got a good reaction. Afterwards, Sally Palmer, from the Ontario Association of Social Workers, came and talked to me. No one else seemed to know about this. I found out you could do something about it.
Sally and Josie d’Amico from the Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disability Benefits started inviting me to the group and then other groups helped out as well, like the legal aid clinic and church groups. We went to the Ontario Legislature Queens’ Park and my MPP, Andrea Horwath, asked a question about my situation. We spoke at other meetings as well.
Q. When did the victory finally occur?
When the Ontario Strategy for Poverty Reduction was announced in December of 2008 – it was one of the things they said they would change right away. But it wasn’t until April 2009 that the rule was changed.
Rosemarie receiving an award from Dr. Gary Warner and the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.
Q. Did your daughter face other obstacles because of your situation?
We decided together she wouldn’t apply for OSAP because she didn’t want to be in debt. But then we found out that she couldn’t apply for McMaster bursaries or on-campus jobs, because they require you to apply for OSAP. We asked to meet with the registrar and explained the situation. McMaster agreed to change the rules so that you could still apply for bursaries as long as you showed financial need. The thing is, the people who make these rules have no idea how it affects people. Once you point out the problems they realize that the rules should be changed. I was disappointed though that the next year in the McMaster booklet they didn’t properly explain that the rule had changed and still printed that you needed to apply for OSAP.
Q. What was challenging for you in fighting this rule?
I am a shy person so I was very nervous about speaking up. So that was difficult.
Q. Did you think you would win?
I wasn’t sure, but so many people agreed with me and since it didn’t require changing a law they said it would be easier. It helped that these rules were keeping people from getting good jobs and paying taxes so that they no longer need the programs – no one argues against that.
Q. What advice would you have for other women who are facing an injustice?
You should speak out if you think something is wrong. One person can make a difference. People will listen and there are organizations and supporters that will help you fight. And not to worry about repercussions – people say that others will hold things against you because of what you say – but that wasn’t true at all for me.
Rosemarie Chapman passed away peacefully on January 15th, 2013, in her 54th year, after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
Featured photo courtesy of Peggy Leung